Thursday, September 12, 2019

A is for Archive: The Future of the Archive

#DarkArchives Roundtable (12.ix.19)
The Future of the Archives

Here are some points that I had made for myself, but didn’t present, at the Oxford Sociey for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature conference, #DarkArchives (darkarchives) Roundtable on ‘The Future of the Archives’, chaired by Pip Willcox. Thank you to the organizers, Drs Julie Dresvina and Stephen Pink, for inviting me to participate; it was lively and interesting. The roundtable was held at 11.30am, and I zoomed in from California (in my pyjamas!) to participate and to hear colleagues’ considered and perceptive views on where academics, archivists and librarians in the medieval and early modern periods go from here; and to learn about and what priorities might emerge in these textual and historical fields.

Hopetoun House fire-proofed archive room

I believe we are close to a point of stasis in the world of medieval and early modern textual materials. There is such an abundance of information available through images, online projects, and a plethora of mismatched finding aids, that it is in danger of overwhelming those who work in these areas. Being overwhelmed, as all students know, leads to stasis--an inability to move in any direction. More, we know much of what archives can be and can do, though we focus too much on the big repositories, and too little on the less-well known places (as well as those that are under significant cultural and political threat). I think scholars have a very good idea of what the digital can be, what it can do for scholarship and research, and we are increasingly getting hints of what it cannot be or do. There is also an awful lot of reinvention of the technological and theoretical wheels (as I, and others, have been saying for the past five or six years). 

So. What next? One thing is sure--despite the tools, the digital medium, the catalogues and editions--expert librarians, archivists and scholars still need their eyes on these collections and their rare materials, as, indeed, some speakers have commented in the Twitter stream (at #DarkArchives). If anything, digitization has shown us how important the physical object is; how we need to look, and then look again, but also feel our way through the object. That aside, as of right now, I have a list of nine (and-a-half) As in my role as prognosticator:

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 3 'A'
1. Avoid loss of momentum. Beyond digitizing more and more materials, when most of what’s available is rarely accessed or studied, how can interdisciplinary teams of scholars maintain the momentum created thus far? How do we make these materials discoverable and accessible (another ‘A’ = accessibility)? How do we encourage more widespread use of the archives that are now in the public domain?
2. Abandon small-scale thinking. Let’s be Audacious in our planning for the future. Events like #DarkArchives, bringing colleagues from all over the world and in many disciplines together, are critical to the discussion and opportunities to build on work already achieved. This means more virtual conferences, perhaps; less ‘ownership’; less of a rush to be the first, to discover the magic formula. It means…
3. Abundant collaboration and generous Aspirations for the community at large. This is easy to say and really difficult to do. IIIF (@iiif_io) is exemplary in this regard with their community conversations and openness to all-comers. Internationally shared resources are critical to the life of this kind of scholarship and curation (with all that that entails, including cataloguing and display). If I cannot do something myself, I should be able to find a freely available resource. If someone has expensive equipment, is there a way to share it?
4. Advocacy for the human, especially when doing work at scale; the human eye is essential. Applied Humanities as a wide-ranging set of disciplines is essential, too. Increasingly, teams working on datasets (whether image-based or not) are almost exclusively engineers. Humanities needs advocates; it needs Appreciation.
5. Attend to the next generation. We must find ways to get a seat at the table of innovation and massively funded research. We must Argue for funds and fellowships to train, support, and create a meaningful career trajectory for our upcoming archivists, graduates, postdoctoral fellows, librarians, academics.
6. Artificial intelligence and Augmented intelligence. Using massive datasets for handwriting recognition development, or large-scale investigation, or crowd-sourcing, means we are reliant on multiple repositories’ clear metadata (as I, Will Noel, Ben Albritton, and many others have pointed out) and consistent digitization outcomes. It also means recognizing the inherent biases in datasets, and the lack of standardization. AI (and AugI) will be critically important in exploring all the data we now have at our disposal, which is still such a tiny amount of what exists, so we must be invested in being involved, but also publicly anticipating the pitfalls.
7. Acknowledgement. We need to loudly and publicly acknowledge each others’ work; acknowledge and credit all team members; acknowledge the undergrads and grads, contingent and precarious scholars who facilitate the projects we initiate. Institutions must be persuaded to recognize how significant team-work is to humanists now and that is it part of many scholars' effort and output. I, for one, could not do lots of areas of my work and thinking without the inspiration and input of Orietta Da Rold, Ben Albritton, Andrew Prescott, all the digitizers, and many others.
8. Acceptance of the fact that none of our collections, or our prioritizing of tasks, is neutral. There are always choices in what we do, and choices are subjective. What do we stand to gain through our choices? Who loses out? How can we be sure to seek representation and inclusivity in our work?
9. Accounting for time: funded time, daily time. Large data, collections of manuscripts, require time to analyse and evaluate. Those of us who’ve run two-year, or five-year, projects to catalogue or create new tools, or design algorithms, know that this takes times. Training of colleagues on teams takes time. But after all that, when those projects are ‘done’, the data (248,000 images of embellished capitals in Stanford Global Currents (SGC), for example,) takes a great deal of unbudgeted time to explore and write-up. This needs to be properly accounted for and properly funded or recompensed.
9.5. Amen to all that.